The Mother of Home Economics: Catharine Beecher

October 10, 2014

Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) was considered by many to be the mother of home economics in America. Beecher became an influential shaper of American middle-class female culture during the antebellum years, by lobbying for higher education for women and the advancement of female teachers in public education. More importantly, Beecher intellectually reconciled the status quo for female subordination to values of American democracy by developing new ways of promoting the role of women within nationalistic rhetoric. Beecher wrote prolifically on education and woman’s place in society, leading an American domestic science movement that was in tune with the demands of industrial capitalism of the late nineteenth century. Many women’s historians feel that Beecher’s influence devalued women’s labor regulating married women to the private sphere of the family household with out benefit of suffrage or property rights.

Catharine Beecher attended Sarah Pierce’s Lichtfield Female Academy from 1810 to 1816 first as a student and then as an assistant teacher. The Lichtfield Academy inculcated the philosophy of Republican Motherhood. This concept of gendered roles emerged during the Early Republican era when rhetoric espoused that the future of the nation was contingent upon women shaping and protecting the spiritual and moral life of society. When Miss Pierce’s nephew Charles Brace came to teach at the academy, he introduced a curriculum for boys along with Addisonian values of domestic gentility to female students. In this model, women and men shared intellectual equality in separate spheres: men conducted business and social activities in the public sphere and females managed the home and social obligations in the private sphere. The curriculum of the Litchfield Academy included reading, writing, composition, and English grammar; geography, ancient and modern history; philosophy and logic; spelling and simple needlework.

Raised in a Calvinist household, she studied music and drawing in preparation for a teaching career. She planned to marry a mariner, which meant that she would need an occupation while he was at see, her first opportunity to teach came in 1821 when she was hired to teach music and drawing in New London. Breaking with the Calvinist teachings of her father Lyman Beecher, Catharine settled into an acceptable occupation for a single woman which was teaching. Catharine wrote to her father on February 15, 1823, “there seems to be no very extensive sphere of usefulness for single woman but that which can be found in the limits of a schoolroom.” After the death of her fiancé Alexander Metcalf Fisher at sea in 1823, Catharine inherited a small fortune from his estate, which she and her sister Mary Foote Beecher used to establish a school for girls in Hartford, Connecticut. This school evolved into the Hartford Female Seminary. Mary did a bulk of the basic teaching, leaving Catharine time to develop her own teaching philosophy where academic excellence is fostered.

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Holding a tiny doll that has a dress made by my mother. Photograph by R. I. Otterbach, 2014.

 

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P.S. I have donned my folklorist attire to do some research on a French artist that settled in San Francisco in the 1910s after finding his name spelled in every which way on the Internet. I am having a blast with the old-fashioned gumshoe-ing and will report on findings in the coming weeks.

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